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Gene Maeroff, Pioneering Education Journalist and First Director of TC's Hechinger Institute, Dies at 75

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Gene Maeroff

Gene Maeroff

By Joe Levine

Gene Maeroff, founding Director of Teachers College’s Hechinger Institute on Education and the Media and one of the leading observers and critics of the nation’s pre-K-12 education, died last week at age 75.

In many ways, Maeroff, a former national education correspondent for The New York Times, put the education beat on the journalism map, functioning early in his career as a kind of one-man Woodward and Bernstein. He was perhaps best known for his front-page story in the mid-1970s revealing a previously undetected, decade-long decline in scores on the SAT exam. The story helped launch the school reform movement and prompt the federal government’s 1983 report “A Nation at Risk.”

After leaving the Times, Maeroff served as a senior fellow at the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching and went on to publish a steady stream of books that included Don’t Blame the Kids (1982), A Classroom of One: How Online Learning Is Changing Our Schools and Colleges (2004), The School-Smart Parent (2012) and Altered Destinies: Making Life Better for School Children in Need (1998). In 2011, while serving as president of the school board in Edison, New Jersey, he wrote School Boards in America: A Flawed Exercise in Democracy. His last book, Reforming a School System, Reviving a City: The Promise of Say Yes to Education in Syracuse (2013), chronicled the successful collaboration between Syracuse city officials and the philanthropic education Say Yes to Education, which academically supports cohorts of children through their K-12 years and then provides scholarships to those who are accepted to college.

“Gene’s impact was profound,” said Michael Rebell, Professor of Law and Educational Practice and Executive Director of TC’s Campaign for Educational Equity. Rebell worked with Maeroff on the Say Yes project, and he has made Reforming a School System, Reviving a City a required text in one of his courses this fall. “He was a prolific writer who got to the heart of educational issues and make complex policy issues understandable and usable for the public and the professionals alike.”

Indeed, Eugene Irving Maeroff – the eldest son of a Cleveland jeweler – was a passionate believer in the idea that students’ academic achievement depends on their economic and social circumstances and that schools must provide more than good teaching to level the playing field.

“Of all the riches denied to disadvantaged children, perhaps the most important have to do with the absence of a network of support that would allow them to thrive in school,” he said in a story published on the Teachers College website in 1998. “The lack of this network and of the norms and values that underpin it place their education at risk from the day they walk into classrooms across the United States.” He added that “if schools in the United States hope to prepare all children for productive, fulfilled lives, then the provision of social capital may be fundamental to the goal.”

“Gene was a top-notch reporter, but a newsman with a heart. I knew him for decades through his careers,” said Jack Jennings, former President and CEO of the Center on Education Policy and, before that, subcommittee staff director and general counsel for the U.S. House of Representatives’ Committee on Education and Labor. “At the New York Times, he was the man to go to if you had a good story. At TC, he educated generations of reporters in the intricacies of schooling. But in both positions, he would raise concerns about those needing extra help to succeed in school. He was a special advocate for federal aid because he believed that federal prodding was needed for state and local authorities to do the right thing for all children. The so called ‘educationally disadvantaged’ have lost a champion.” TC’s Hechinger Institute  equipped education reporters – especially those new to the beat – to look past surface events to understand how mechanisms such as school finance dictated academic outcomes for different populations of students. Maeroff believed such preparation was essential if the press were to hold the nation’s ever-mushrooming school bureaucracy accountable, – particularly given that few reporters were staying more than a year or two on the education beat and that growing number of publications (including, ultimately, the Times itself) were eliminating the education beat entirely.

“The public needs good reporting on education if it is going to hold schools and campuses responsible,” he said when the Institute opened in 1997. “The Hechinger Institute means to do all it can to be sure journalists can maintain these high standards.”

Critical to that mission for Maeroff was to ensure the Institute, which was named in memory of Fred M. Hechinger, former education editor of The New York Times and TC Trustee, remain independent from Teachers College itself.

“We made it clear from the start that we were not going to be an arm for promoting the College,” he said when the Institute celebrated its 10-year anniversary. “If we hadn't done that, we would have had no credibility in the journalism community.”

The Institute’s seminars and workshops, held at TC and around the country, included guest speakers such as Jennings; Katie Haycock, President of the Education Trust; and TC emeritus professor Edmund W. Gordon, champion of the concept of supplementary education.  The gatherings were well attended by reporters from papers ranging from the Times to smaller state and city publications.

“Gene did more to shape an entire generation of education journalists than anyone,” recalled Mark Fisher, a reporter for The Dayton Daily News in Dayton, Ohio, who covered education for nearly two decades and who attended several Hechinger seminars.

Scott Elliott, President of the Education Writers Association (EWA), echoed that sentiment.

“I know it was the Maeroff-led 1999 Hechinger seminar for reporters new to the education beat that really got me enthusiastic about this work, helped me establish a couple of my most important friendships in the field, led me to get involved in EWA and turned me into an education journalism lifer,” Elliott wrote in a recent email to EWA members.

From its inception in 1997, the Institute also reflected Maeroff’s penchant for deep research, publishing primers for education journalists on topics such as pre-K, charter schools and educational testing.  These efforts blossomed into full-scale reports and white papers, often prepared by visiting beat journalists working through Hechinger fellowships. Such work eventually led to the Institute’s evolution, under Maeroff’s successors, Richard Lee Colvin and the current director, Liz Willen, into an organization that also conducts its own journalism (The Hechinger Report), sometimes in partnership with other news organizations.

Yet despite his prescience in anticipating shifts in the news business, Maeroff could be a traditionalist on some education matters. He approached education technology, for example, with a skeptical eye.

“Character takes shape within the crucible of personal interaction,” he wrote in a critique of cyber-learning published in February 2003 in Education Week. “Youngers learn sharing, honest and reliability, for example, in situations in which they witness the behavior of others and grow accustomed to conducting themselves in accord with certain mores and expectations.”

And at a time when schools boards composed of parents were increasingly being targeted for elimination by big city mayors and schools’ chancellors, Maeroff found hope in the boards’ democratic messiness.

“[I am not] persuaded that elementary and secondary education would be that much better if school boards did not exist,” he wrote in his book on the topic, which also portrayed school boards in all their dysfunctional glory. “There is perhaps no greater experience for which a man or woman can volunteer.”


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Your Memories

  • An incrediable man, and advocate for those needing a better and proper education. He made a difference in society for many. - Toni Waggoner